For a certain section of the audience walking into Spike Lee’s remake of “Oldboy,” the word “octopus” transports. It conjures up an unforgettable highlight from director Park Chan Wook’s 2003 original, and also one reason from many why an American adaptation should have remained a “what-if” scenario. At least Lee occasionally knows which battles to pick: when an eight-armed mollusk does appear—clung to the side of a water tank in a dingy Chinese restaurant—it stays there. As a visual in-joke it works, but we quickly realize the “Inside Man” director is more keen on those filmgoers without a grasp on its significance, and who are blind to the film’s later aberrant twists. Which, judging from the audible groans of disgust in our auditorium, may number more than a few.
That isn’t to say every frame of “Oldboy” courses with the joy of discovery—quite the opposite, in fact. At its center the film is tale of revenge, enacted by New York ad man Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) after a wrongful 20-year imprisonment. It's a rote procedural, and not a particularly compelling one at that. Where the story attracts meaning are the questions of retribution and blame that it raises and aside from a potentially unintentional commentary on obedience and submission in the set design and wardrobe, Lee largely fails to reach those. He thinks stripped-down means raw in this case, but really that approach only peels back the silly sketches of plot and characters that he’s exploring.
Though the first narrative film of Lee’s to be stripped of “Joint” status (the doc "4 Little Girls" didn't use it, presumably because of the grave subject matter), the film also recalls its director’s thumbprint straight away in style and subject matter. As Joe, after missing his daughter’s birthday to botch a crucial work deal, stumbles drunk down a street in 1990s New York, the camera fixes on his back in one of Lee’s signature dolly shots. Later, in Joe’s hotel room-turned-prison cell, news footage of 9/11, George W. Bush, and Katrina plays on a small TV screen—almost as though the three form a ritualistic Trinity required before Lee proceeds. By the time his frequent collaborator Michael Imperioli appears as Joe’s bartender friend Chucky, the trademarks unfortunately seem closer to crutches than motifs.
What Brolin seems, though, is devoted. During his prison stay, he cuts himself, masturbates frantically to exercise videos, and becomes a heaving mass of muscle and scraggly hair and beard—demonstrations of the actor’s physical investment but less so his emotional accuracy. Not that “insanity” is such a precise objective, but when every scene feels like the seventh minute of some experimental take of Lee and Brolin’s, you can sense when mannerisms enter into the equation.
Two standout fight sequences do manage to capitalize on that dynamic: one that fans of the original are expecting, and one entirely new brawl that is actually more effectively brutal. Not to say that the former hallway fight is mishandled—its one-take, two-level madness is a feat of choreography (if a little static) and technical skill—but the latter perfectly stresses Lee’s tone of sick humor and bone-crunching immediacy, a tone he often fails to achieve elsewhere.
Lee handles a similarly game cast of Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, and Samuel L. Jackson, all performers clearly relishing their roles here. Only Jackson and Copley get the time to shine within them though. Playing Liz, a social worker who decides to help Joe locate his captor, Olson is severely wasted in her time on-screen, always bidding Brolin farewell with a tear or relaying exposition from the script by Mark Protosevich. The “I Am Legend” screenwriter (working from Garon Tsuchiya’s original Japanese manga) examines our current reliance on technology in the bed of film noir, and attempts to draw humor from Joe—stuck mentally in the ‘90s before his kidnapping—as he encounters new developments, like Google. For this crime thriller this approach is dramatic suicide: instead of a boots-on-the-ground investigation, Brolin just searches for his leads on the Internet. And why not use the mobile phone app Shazam to hinge a key plot point regarding a song’s identity?
It is not a coincidence then that the most noteworthy characters are those too villainous to be seen scrolling through an iPhone. Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson play two slices of operatic energy that save the film from becoming merely a notably glossy episode of “Law and Order: Hammer Crimes Unit.” Copley looms behind a posh English accent with a manicured physicality undone by scars across his chest, and the story behind those scars—captured in one crawling shot by DP and MVP Sean Bobbitt (“Shame,” “Place Beyond The Pines”)—truly unsettles with its unblinking chaos. Likewise, Jackson is gloriously wicked in his role as prison gatekeeper; a gruesome confrontation between him and Brolin simmers with well-written exchanges and gruesomely comical asides, while his yellow Mohawk and vibrant wardrobe of bright-red shirts and coats punches color into the film, both visually and narratively.
About that costume, though. While Lee has streamlined the themes of Park’s original and made them disappointingly bare, he brings up one new possible element. It is triggered by Jackson’s flowing red coat, and also a piece of set décor in Joe’s hotel room early on: a poster of a black man wearing a red concierge uniform, with the words, “What can we do to improve your stay?” pasted underneath.
The poster—like the octopus—at first appears a throwaway gag, but considering Lee’s mention of the Sambo character, a 19th century children's book character that morphed into a racial epithet to describe slaves, in his 2000 film “Bamboozled,” it points to perhaps an unspoken, disturbing depth in the film’s ideas of submission and its effects. The concierge in the poster materializes in Joe’s reality and mirrors his constant torture and oppression over wasted years, while Jackson’s Chaney heads up a group of largely faceless henchmen—all bound to a boss that keeps them indebted and stuck working within a prison, which isn’t too far from being imprisoned themselves.
It is an insight that emerges after the film though; too often during the narrative it plods along with an airless approach and reined-in performances. While Lee edges in enough unique elements to argue a second look at the brutal revenge tale, his lean, blackly comic result is transcendent only in fits and starts, stripping away much of its thematic and emotional heft and leaving one of the most frustratingly accomplished disappointments this year. [C-]